Tag Archives: Literature

Louisa May Alcott’s musical leitmotif

Louisa May Alcott effectively depicted collective musical performances to affirm community in Little women; but more significantly, she used music to represent the feminine sphere as she and the culture of her time defined it.

Each sister’s acceptance of or entry into that domain is depicted through scenes of musical performance: “No one but Beth could get much music out of the old piano; but she had a way of softly touching the yellow keys and making a pleasant accompaniment to the simple songs they sang. Meg had a voice like a flute, and she and her mother led the little choir. Amy chirped like a cricket, and Jo wandered through the airs at her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with a croak or a quaver that spoilt the most pensive tune.”

Laurie, the rich boy next door, who is a talented pianist, must take the opposite path on his journey; his attainment of manhood is symbolically represented through the silencing of his musical voice.

In these and more ways, the musical leitmotif in Little Women tells us much about gender roles in American culture and about the limited choices facing both nineteenth-century American women and nineteenth-century American men.

This according to “Music as leitmotif in Louisa May Alcott’s Little women” by Colleen Reardon (Children’s literature XXIV [1996] 74-85; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-26449).

Today is Alcott’s 190th birthday! Below, Beth’s Christmas scene from the 1994 film.

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Filed under Literature, Women's studies

Prokof’ev’s bad dog

In 1917 Sergej Sergeevič Prokof’ev briefly returned to one of his childhood interests: writing fiction.

He considered what this pursuit entailed. “My style caused me concern,” he wrote. “Did it have individuality or was it awkward?”

Ultimately he concluded, “If there’s an idea, then the style will be subservient to the idea. If I have an idea, that means I’m an author.”

One of his short stories, Пудель: Мерзкая собака (The poodle: A bad dog) was published in an English translation by Three oranges (3 [May 2002] pp. 6–9; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-9136. The full text is here). A surprise twist at the end is a wry nod to the composer’s interest in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Below, Prokof’ev’s good dog.

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Modulations and caterpillars

A fragment of Pherecrates’s comedy Chiron, as quoted in Plutarch’s Peri mousikēs, provides insights into aesthetic controversies in ancient Greece.

The scene depicts Dame Music as she recounts to Dame Justice the torments she has undergone at the hands of certain musicians of the time: Melanippides seized, debased, and weakened her with 12 tones; Cinesias ruined her with badly composed modulations; Phrynis bent, twisted, and completely destroyed her by sounding all 12 tones on the kithara; and, most egregiously of all, Timotheus, with his shrill dissonances and sinfully high-pitched and piercing notes and whistles, crammed her with modulations just as a cabbage-head is crammed with caterpillars, depriving her of all decency with his 12 tones.

This according to “Studies in musical terminology in 5th-century literature” by Ingemar Düring, an essay included in Eranos Löfstedtianus: Opuscula philologica Einaro Löfstedt A.D. XVII kal. iul. anno MCMXLV dedicata (Uppsala : Eranos Förlag, 1945; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1945-34).

More posts about ancient Greece are here.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Humor, Literature, Theory

Dickens and music

Charles Dickens’s works attest to a keen familiarity with the ballads and traditional songs of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Less obvious from his writings is his deep love of Western classical music—he adored the lieder of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, he championed Arthur Sullivan, and he reported being “overcome” by Gounod’s Faust.

Still, Dickens found a rich vein of humor in the music making of the common folk—not least in the character of Mr. Morfin in Dombey and Son:

“He was a great musical amateur in his way…and had a paternal affection for his violoncello, which was once in every week transported from Islington, his place of abode, to a certain club-room hard by the Bank, where quartettes of the most tormenting and excruciating nature were executed every Wednesday evening by a private party.”

“He was solacing himself with this melodious grumbler one evening, and, having been much dispirited by the proceedings of the day, was scraping consolation out of its deepest notes…[but] his landlady…was fortunately deaf, and had no other consciousness of these performances than a sensation of something rumbling in her bones.”

This according to “Dickens and music” by Charles Cudworth (The musical times CXI/1528 [June 1970] pp. 588–590. Today is Dickens’s 210th birthday!

Related article: Musicology and fiction

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Filed under Literature, Romantic era

Joyce’s musical sirens

In the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses James Joyce made words represent music by playing with or even overcoming certain conventional features of language. Particularly notable are Joyce’s representation of polyphony, melody, rhythm, and of music’s traditional absence of conventional meaning.

The essence of Joycean onomatopoeia in “Sirens” is not that it represents music iconically, but that it makes music linguistically. Joycean onomatopoeia is not the natural union of meaning and form, of signified and signifier—it is the signifier freeing itself from the link with the signified.

“Sirens” is a step toward absolute form and abstraction; it breaks with the representational conventions of naturalistic and realistic fiction and points the way toward modernism.

This according to “Strange words, strange music: The verbal music of ‘Sirens’” by Andreas Fischer, an essay included in Bronze by gold: The music of James Joyce (New York: General Music, 1999).

Ulysses was first published 100 years ago today! Above, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife and muse, on their wedding day in 1931; the novel takes place on the day they met in 1904. Below, Cathy Berberian reads an excerpt from the “Sirens” episode.

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Filed under Literature, Women's studies

The refugee as epic hero

 

K’naan’s 2005 debut album, The dusty foot philosopher, can be viewed as a modern-day epic poem that draws on his experiences in Canada’s Somali refugee community.

The album employs many classic epic tropes—including the sea voyage, the exile, the battle with adversaries, the mystical qualities of the heroic figure—and adapts them to the conventions of hip hop culture. Just as the epic poem embodies the core values of the society from which it originates, so The dusty foot philosopher functions as a paradigm of the experiences and challenges of the refugee, one of globalization’s defining figures.

This according to “The survivor’s odyssey: K’naan’s The dusty foot philosopher as a modern epic” by Ana Sobral (African American review XLVI/1 [spring 2013] pp. 21–36).

Today is World Refugee Day! Above and below, the video for Strugglin’, a song from the album.

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Filed under Literature, Politics, Popular music

Mark Twain on opera

Mark Twain’s reactions to grand opera are epitomized by a passage from A tramp abroad in which he described a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

“The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed.”

“There was little of that sort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down by the footlights, warbling, with blended voices…no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sang his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra of sixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and one was hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, a great chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth.”

“We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven’s sweet ecstasy and peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproduction of the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of people marched around and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding Chorus. To my untutored ear that was music—almost divine music. While my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds, it seemed to me that I could almost re-suffer the torments which had gone before, in order to be so healed again.”

“There is where the deep ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts. A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhere else, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.”

Excerpted from “Mark Twain on opera” (The NATS journal XLIII/3 [January–February 1987] pp. 19, 49).

Above, the author around 1880, the year A tramp abroad was published; below, Hans Neuenfels‘s staging of the “little season of heaven” at Bayreuth in 2010.

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Filed under Humor, Literature, Opera

Mallarmé and dance

Mallarmé_(Manet)

Although Stéphane Mallarmé’s writings on dance are few, he has come to be considered an important dance theorist who allied and underscored two aspects of dance that are seldom simultaneously emphasized: its ritual character and its function as a system of signs.

While Mallarmé linked dance with poetry, he noted that—unlike poetry—dance’s symbolism does not develop from a codified semiotic system; rather, dance signifiers are inherently open-ended, and the spectator completes the art work by supplying the signified.

This according to “Ephemeral signs: Apprehending the idea through poetry and dance” by Mary Lewis Shaw (Dance research journal XX/1 [summer 1988] pp. 3–9).

Above, Édouard Manet’s portrait of the poet; below, perhaps the ultimate meeting of Mallarmé and dance, as Rudolf Nureyev performs a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s choreography for Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a work inspired by Mallarmé’s L’après-midi d’un faune.

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Filed under Dance, Mass media